Is Reading Good Books Over?
There is great “truth and beauty” in Homer’s Iliad, but I would not try to make his sale on such platitudes. Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire remains a classic. But I confess it can be hard to get through. Conrad’s Victory or Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil, if authored by writer X this year, would be trashed on Amazon.
So what are the reasons, in this age of the iPhone, Xbox, and PlayStation — or Fox News blondes and HBO — to sit down and read old stuff for an hour or two each week?
Here are a few reasons other than the usual defense of the “classics,” the “canon,” and the glories of “Western civilization.”
The mind is a muscle. Without exercise, it reverts to mush. Watching most TV or using the normal electronic gadgetry does not tax us much — indeed that is by design the very purpose: to eliminate effort, worry, unease, and afterthought. None of us thinks back a year ago to a great video game session. Few off-hand can recall the Super Bowl winner of 2001. I remember the scenes in a Shane or Casablanca, but not many others in the other thousand of movies that I have watched.
By nature, our ways of expression and even thinking always fossilize and are withering away with age and monotony — a process accelerated by the modern electronic age and the neglect of replenishment through reading. The actual vocabulary of our present youth seems to me reduced to about 1,000 words or so. “Like,” “whatever,” “you know,” “cool,” and other pop culture fillers now substitute for entire phrases, a sort of modern porcine grunting. The Greeks used particles to accentuate vocabulary and guide syntax; we used them instead of vocabulary. Our syntax, both written and oral, is reverting to “Spot is a dog”: noun, verb, predicate — period. How did incomprehensible slang, spiced with vulgarity, become an object of emulation? I used to listen to farmers without college degrees speak wonderful English; now to listen to a member of Congress almost requires a translator.
Reading alone enriches our vocabulary; it teaches us that good writing requires a sense of melody as well as a command of grammar. Soon those well-read become the well-spoken.
A Master of Words
Think for a minute: why did the Right often ignore the contradictions of Christopher Hitchens, and the Left mostly give up most of its anger at him? He was not necessarily a classically beautiful stylist, and could be needlessly cruel. He wrote no great history, no great novel, no great single essay that we can instantly recall in the manner of an Orwell or Chesterton. But Mr. Hitchens surely was a rare and gifted writer, polemicist, and savant. To read 800 words was to learn something new in passing. Even in his most ridiculous rant, a nugget of wisdom could be uncovered. A reference to an obscure Eastern European politician might appear side-by-side a line from Wordsworth — and would make a better illustration of his argument than just showcasing his erudition. He mastered the odd, even perverse turn of phrase, the ability to juxtapose the colloquialism next to Latinate pomposity, or to write a ridiculous 10-line long sentence, stuffed with semi-cola, dashes, cola, and commas, followed by a two-word noun-verb sentence that a five-year old could produce. In short, Hitchens was a voracious consumer of texts, and the result was that he achieved what the Roman student of rhetoric, Quintilian, once called variatio, the ability to mix up words and sentences and not bore. He could hold, even shock, the reader or listener from sentence to sentence, moment to moment.
But We Are So Much More to the Point
But you object that at least our current economy of expression cuts out wasted words and clauses, a sort of slimmed-down, electronic communication? Perhaps, but it also turns almost everything into instant bland hot cereal, as if we should gulp down oatmeal at every meal and survive well enough without the bother of salad, main course, and dessert. Each day our vocabulary shrinks, our thought patterns stagnate — if they are not renewed through fresh literature or intelligent conversation. Unfortunately these days, those who read are few and silent; those who don’t, numerous and heard. In this drought, Dante’s Inferno and William Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico provide needed storms of new words, complex syntax, and fresh ideas.